On a fleeting trip to Amsterdam from the set of Ulrich Seidl’s new film, the great Austrian cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler shares some of the secrets of his profession.
Thaler came to IDFA to introduce a screening of Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory (2011) in the festival’s Camera in Focus section. Whores’ Glory (about the lives of prostitutes in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico) was a very gruelling film to shoot. Six years on, Thaler still talks of his dismay at what he saw. “First of all, it was a shock. From the emotional side, it was a shock; from the technical side, it was shock.”
The brothels were in near darkness. Thaler had to come up with a way of shooting them. He wanted to express his emotions through the images. “The women looking into the camera … I tried to do my best to respect them.” As he points out, it doesn’t make a documentary “truthful” if “you shoot it like shit, if the camera is in the wrong place and the light is not good and the camera is shaking.”
Thaler has sometimes been accused of shooting documentaries — for example, Glawogger’s Megacities — in too beautiful a way for the grim subject matter they depict. “Beauty is everywhere” is how he responds to such a charge. “This beauty you can find in all situations, even in the slums.” He is not prepared to “show it in a shitty way, that we in the West feel much more comfortable about.”
During the filming of Whores’ Glory, when the women watched Thaler working and saw the respect with which he was treating them, they treated him with equal respect in turn. It is one of Thaler’s most strongly held beliefs that the relationship between the documentary makers and their subjects is “not one way.” This is not newsreel journalism. “They allow us to enter their world, so I have to do my best so they feel comfortable.”
Thaler has always relied more on instinct than technique in his cinematography. “It’s a communication between my soul, my feeling, and what I see with my eyes. It’s very hard to say what makes an image strong.”
“That is the main thing in my work,” he continues, “the relationship to the people in front of the camera. That’s not just in documentary. In feature films, there are very intense scenes and if there is someone behind the camera with the wrong energy, you are blocked as an actor. I am not the guy filming from a tripod metres away. There is no distance between me with my camera and the actor.”